The Real Tarzan

A discussion with Josh Ponte, a conservationist and documentary filmmaker, has spent the last 15 years working to preserve Gabon’s extraordinary wildlife
The spectacular African landscapes in The Legend of Tarzan were captured on location in the country of Gabon, on the west coast of Africa. Josh Ponte, a conservationist and documentary filmmaker, has spent the last 15 years working to preserve Gabon’s extraordinary wildlife. He served as African technical advisor on the film, providing location services and knowledge on local history and culture. Now Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures are joining Ponte’s fight to protect the world’s elephants. They are teaming with the NGO Stop Ivory to support the Elephant Protection Initiative. 
Can you take us back to what first drew you to Gabon?  Was Africa a place that you’d always wanted to explore?

No, not really.  It was utterly accidental. I am a furniture maker by training, and I was nursing a slightly broken heart, so it was a standard manoeuvre – I just wanted to turn left.  And an ad popped up in a British newspaper that just said:  Gorilla project. Gabon.  

So you got on a plane and moved to Gabon.  How did you get your bearings?  

It was an English charity that brought me there – the John Aspinall Foundation. And they’d instructed me to go to a certain hotel and at the hotel I was given the combination numbers for a briefcase, which I found in the bedroom.  It was brilliant – I felt like James Bond!  I opened it up and the briefcase was full of cash, like you see in the movies.  At the time, I didn’t realize the value of African money – you need a lot of it to do anything.  

There was a list of things to do; ‘outboard motor’ was on the list, along with a note that a guy named Justin would come and pick me up.  So, the next morning I got on a plane for a very strange flight – the engine caught fire while we were still on the ground and my seat kept falling back – and I thought, ‘What is this place?’  But that was the first time I’d seen the forest from above.  And it’s vast – this canopy that goes on forever.  The easiest way to describe it is like looking at broccoli florets through a microscope.  

I think I assumed the rainforest would all be knocked down, but, of course, it’s not.  So much of Gabon is intact forest because there’s no one there.  The country is the size of Colorado; there are 1.4 million people there, and two-thirds of them live in two cities.  It’s empty.  There’s tons of oil at the coast, so they haven’t touched their forest, and 20 minutes from the capital, there are elephants walking on the beach. I loved it the minute I saw it; it felt totally great to be there.  

Then you become caretaker to these young gorillas.  How did that work?

When we landed, I was picked up by an American, Liz Pearson, project manager for PPG [Project for the Protection of Gorillas], who drove me for four hours across the savannah and then three hours on a boat to the camp.  The next morning I met the gorillas.

These 16 gorillas were orphans, but they lived totally in the wild.  And it was an artificial group made up mostly of confiscated babies.  When hunters would go into the forest and kill gorillas, they’d grab their babies and try to sell them; then we’d get the call and bring the baby into our group.  There were also a couple of gorillas who had come from the zoos in England that funded the project.  All 16 gorillas were all of sub-sexual maturity.  It’s difficult to age a gorilla, but we thought the oldest ones were about seven or eight.  And because some of them were very tiny, we used to supplement their food by bringing them buckets of milk formula with vitamins in it.  

So, on the first day, we were carrying these milk buckets, and all 16 gorillas came towards me like a school train – the biggest one first, the baby at the end.  It was just surreal.  I was scooping milk into these goblets that everyone drinks out of and the gorillas were drinking it, but they got a bit unruly and tried to grab the bucket.  It was a bit insane at the beginning, but I was so awestruck.  

I was told to just sit down and they would all come up to me, and nearly all of them did.  They’d grab my hand and sniff it very hard.  The females then sat around me and the males ran off, and then one-by-one would kind of fly by and slap me a bit.  So, what became very clear very quickly was this kind of gender separation.  They knew exactly what gender I was; the females were interested in what that meant, and the boys were going to play fighting games with me for a bit.  

Those fighting games, over the 18 months that I was there, increased.  At the beginning, the alpha of the group, weirdly, was a female – just because she was the biggest and much older than the next youngest.  But during my period there, the oldest male became dominant.  So I left the sanctuary a tiny bit earlier than I had planned because he challenged me properly at the end.  I had the choice either to stand up to the challenge – and our policy was always not to do that – or to leave, which is why primatologists are generally women.  

While you were with them, did you acclimate to their world and learn a bit of their language, like Dian Fossey famously did in her time?

Yes.  We’d be sitting quietly with 16 gorillas for most of the day, so there was no way not to. I am a tirelessly curious person and obsessed with what makes us what we are, and would just stare at them all day.  You read their eyes the same way as you read a human’s, and find that they are the same as us – there were some that were reliable; some that were unreliable; some that were trustworthy; some that were mischievous; and some that were downright violent and mean.  They had all their traits.  

At the beginning, I thought, ‘I’m never going to separate one from another.’  But one of them would have a mole or a marking or a bit of pigment where the skin is very dark, and, of course, you get to know their characters really clearly.  One of the gorillas was very bad at climbing.  I would never sit underneath her because she’d inevitably fall out of a tree, and then this beautiful little rain of leaves would tumble behind.  She didn’t know what the engineering was, which is an occupational hazard if you sleep in a tree [laughs].  

The Tarzan stories were dreamed up a century ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Having spent so much time with gorillas yourself, why do you think this fantasy character – a man raised in the wild and brought up by a family of apes – still speaks to us?

There’s something interesting about where the line between fact and fiction lives – and movies are that line.  It’s a representation of fact, and yet more and more we live either in fantasy or in a construct.  

At the time that Burroughs created Tarzan, European explorers had gone into the ‘heart of darkness’ and their tales ignited this kind of Victorian fascination with:  What is that link?  What’s the bridge between us and the forest?  

Burroughs took that curiosity about the ‘savage and civilised’ and flipped it.  He took the English aristocrat – the great bastion of politeness and manners and nobility – and he made him one of ‘them.’  For me, it’s as pertinent today as it was a hundred years ago.

So, how did you first cross paths with director David Yates and become involved in the production of The Legend of Tarzan?  

I first got word about the project from Alex Gladstone, an old friend of mine who is a big locations guy in the UK and was working at the time with Kevin de la Noy.  So I knew they were looking at all options for The Legend of Tarzan.  The Gabonese Ambassador to the U.S. had also met with someone from the studio about it.  

At the time, Kev was cutting a line across Africa – from Gabon to Kenya – to find locations, and we blew his socks off with the potential of this amazing, very real landscape and the potential support from the National Parks Agency.  These factors piqued David Yates’s interest, and once they’d shortlisted their options, Gabon was the favourite by far.  So Kev put me in touch with David, and David then came out for the helicopter tour.  I know these kinds of films can take a long time to come to fruition, but once he was out in these spectacular landscapes, he was like a kid in a candy shop.  He spent four days just glued to the helicopter window, watching what would become the landscapes of his film rendered in 360-degree real-vision!  

The Gabonese landscape, particularly in the north, is made of these ancient granite outcrops. So that was a highlight.  We also went to see the Ivindo River – which is a black, black river – and the Kongou and Mingouli Falls spilling through the forest over ten square miles. It’s breathtaking under any circumstances.  And he immediately said, ‘We need it in the movie.’  So he was in.  But it’s Gabon so it was an unknown quantity – there is really no infrastructure for filming.  There was a feature in the ‘60s, and we did Survivor there.  I’d shot a documentary for National Geographic.  So then we went to work on the real logistics of filming in Gabon.  

David was also very keen to explore what I knew historically and culturally about this region to build something of integrity.  So he had me on his shoulder during production, and we got on very well.  I rendered this world for him; how much of that made it through is anyone’s guess.  But, of course, these things are massive collaborations.

The visual world is my world, so I worked with the art department and the prop department.  I’m a photographer by training, and have an enormous archive of visual material.  I spent tons of time with [production designer] Stuart Craig.  I adore him.  He’s just amazing.  The process of finding references I love anyway, and was able to find some very obscure references for him.  So, we enjoyed each other’s time very much.  

Can you take us through the process of the location shoot, when you went by helicopter with the filmmakers and director of photography Henry Braham to capture these landscapes?

We shot for a very long time at Leavesden [UK], and then went to Gabon for a six-week shoot. We’d go up before the sun came up to get those beautiful early morning shots, and land two minutes before it was too dark to fly.  We flew every day for six weeks, shooting the landscapes with this incredible camera rig designed especially for the film.

It had a gyro mount that had never been used before, which put six Red Epic cameras on the nose of the helicopter that could capture 160 degrees of landscape.  The combination of that breadth and the dynamic nature of this new rig meant that we were able to catch a huge amount of data.  We got half a world of very high resolution imagery and you could pan anywhere in that world, which is why the landscapes in the film are so awesome.  

Can you describe the general route you took over the six weeks?

I got sent the bucket list, if you like – what shots we needed or what visuals we needed to capture.  It could have been the roof of a train or the edge of a boat or Tarzan’s home or trees sticking out of a ridge.  

Central Africa’s always a fight, and it has never seen something of this scale before, but we worked with the government and the national parks, the hotel that lodged us – and everyone was amazing.  Most of the footage was shot in this beautiful place called Lopé National Park, in the middle of Gabon, so we had to build a hangar in the middle of the savannah.  It was a hell of a thing. 

What was David’s reaction?  

He was overjoyed, I think.  There was an interesting bit at the beginning when they would ask for certain elements – a bend in the river or a bit of savannah – and I would take them there so they could see what the real thing looked like.  David would say, ‘We can’t show that – it’s so wildly different, the audience will think we created it digitally.’  Weirdly, what we as an audience think a rainforest is can take you away from the real.  I think David wanted to help push that back in line in some way and I was very honoured by how much he drew me into that process.  

I think that we’re breaking new ground in the line between CGI and live action with this film.  I do notice the bits where reality ends and movie magic takes over, but seeing the interface between what was shot on sets and the Gabonese landscape in the movie, particularly the big shots, blew me away.  I’m totally proud of what we did.  

For the sequences in the film at the Kuba Village, there was much singing and you were involved in that process.  Can you talk a bit about that?  
Central African people sing almost by default.  Beautifully.  And archiving that music has been a huge part of my work for the last fifteen years.  It’s very, very diverse and very rare and very precious, and very good music.  

On the odd occasion where David did allow me to pick some music in the film, I started trying to compose a bit and it wasn’t working because there are lots of different musical types.  So, I worked with a small, tight group of the extras that run African drumming workshops, and just ended up saying, ‘You lot, go for it.  Here’s a start.’  And once I gave them license to be who many of them are, they could do it like the people in the village that I’ve recorded.  So we created two little bits of music – a mixture between one Kenyan traditional tune and a Ghanaian tune – then wrote some new Lingala lyrics, the Congolese language that’s kind of peppered through the film.    And what was wonderful was that, even in first-, second-, third-generation Brits of African descent, how utterly ingrained it is in their fabric as people.

Can you talk about the work you’re doing now to help save the elephants of Gabon.  Was that a natural transition following your work at the Gorilla Sanctuary?
While I was working with the gorillas, an American scientist named Michael Fay did this incredible walk:  415 days, I think,  between northwest Congo and the Gabonese coast [2,000 km].  His walk, known as the ‘megatransect,’ was picked up by National Geographic and documented in a series of fantastic photographs.  Those photographs and some scientific research by Lee White, who runs the Gabon National Park Service today, were my introduction to then-Minister of Defense Ali Bongo – the son of Gabon’s President at the time, Omar Bongo – and his wife.  She wanted to come and see the gorillas, so they got in touch with me.  

So, that relationship was important.  Mike’s walk and Lee’s science were all important.  And those three things came together at a meeting in New York between Mike and the President of Gabon in 2001, which resulted in the Gabonese government creating a network of 13 national parks by the end of that year.  It was the most exciting thing to happen in Central Africa – 11% of Gabon was now devoted to land conservation.

So, we’ve spent the last 15 years trying to realise the opportunity of these protected areas.  It was a huge opportunity, but because these parks were created with the wave of the Presidential wand, there was no structure. Then, when Ali Bongo was elected President in 2009, I went back in and became a special advisor to him.  And, around this time, the elephant crisis was coming to a head.

In Gabon?

Yes, but a whole different species of elephant lives in the forests of the Congo basin.  Not the big, grey, large-eared African Elephants of the Savannah, but the forest elephants, which are smaller and a rusty red colour, with these very long, very beautiful pink ivory tusks.  Sixty percent of forest elephants have been killed in the last 10 years, and of the remaining 40%, half live in Gabon. Gabon is a sanctuary of a kind and a melting pot for speciation.  It’s like Noah’s ark, really.  In England, we have 30 species of tree; Gabon has 10,000.  And now we’ve got a national park network, so Gabon has become a haven for these rare forest elephants.  

What is it about elephants that drives you to work so passionately to save them?  

Anyone who has seen an elephant knows they’re pretty special.  Over the years, any time I saw an elephant, I would stop and sit on the boot of the car and just stare at this seven-ton animal. There is nothing more awesome.  Whales and elephants are the two things you can’t not just stare at and think, ‘This creature is everything.’  They are not only amazing in their structure; they’re matriarchal, and bring up their kids for a very long time.  They have a well-developed culture.  They’ve got a big brain, are highly sophisticated and hugely clever.  

Being around top-level biologists for 15 years, you get to learn about the elephants’ ecological job as the architects or guardians of the landscape.  What is very, very important about elephants is that they clear the trails, spread seeds, and find water for everything else – they are the gardeners of the forest.  That’s what they do.  So, elephants are pretty high on my list of amazing things to be kind to. 

There were around 20 million elephants in the era in which our film takes place; now, there are less than half a million.  Nineteen-and-a-half million elephants in 100 years for the sake of pistol grips and piano keys and sculptures and trinkets and billiard balls.

Can you talk about the Elephant Protection Initiative and how you became involved in the Stop Ivory campaign?

In 2010, thirty seven African states that have elephant populations came together under the mantle of the U.N. and said, ‘Help.’  The U.N. said, ‘Okay, we’ll help.’  They asked for $100 million, and that fund was never realised – not by anyone’s fault individually.  So this initiative was set up with Stop Ivory, with five African heads of state at its heart and the involvement of the British government and people like Prince William and his charities.  

Lots of people are on it, but not enough people know.  But those who do know, they know very well that we’re at a critical crisis point.  So I just felt it was something that was worth putting my efforts in, particularly because Gabon is one of the great last reserves and I have that experience.  And there is no better fictional character that I can even imagine than Tarzan saving Central African wildlife.  He was born out of his link with nature and his nature won, so I made it my mission to try and make something happen in this way.  Teaming up with Warner Bros. and the actors and filmmakers behind The Legend of Tarzan seemed like a no-brainer.  

What would be your ultimate goal with the film and Stop Ivory joining forces?  

It’s very simple.  There are two things I want to do.  I want to raise awareness, and I want to raise money.  People need to realise that we are realistically looking at a world potentially where elephants only exist as relics in a museum.  My boy Jack might not grow up in a world with elephants. That doesn’t seem sensible.

How many elephants are we losing?  

They say a hundred a day.  

When you tackle a problem like this, you’re looking at so many levels of a global trade, from the poachers to the people who buy the trinkets.  How do you break a chain with so many links?
It’s incredibly complex, and we are working across the whole spectrum at the supply end of the chain, where it could be a young man in a village who’s living in extreme poverty, who is offered a very meager pay.  In many countries, it’s now understood to be dangerous enough from a legal point of view that the price is going up.  But, still, that young man is getting pittance compared to what’s going on right at the other end of the chain.  The rise in value happens as it crosses the border and enters the market of some of the wealthier countries.  The U.S. is, first of all, the second largest domestic market in the world, which might be somewhat surprising to hear.  There’s certainly an argument that there would be no supply if there were no demand.  And we’ve made great bounds in that.  

Our mission does three things predominantly:  It puts ivory beyond economic use, even if it’s just for a period.  At its peak, ivory was getting to $5000-$7000 a kilo.  A tusk can be thirty-five kilos, forty kilos.  That’s a chunk of change for one bullet with a high-powered rifle.  What we are doing is empowering African governments to do their bit in saying, ‘This stuff is more valuable on a living elephant than it is on the ground.’  There was a great example of this recently. The Kenyan government burnt 107 tons of ivory in front of the world’s press, supporting the central resolution of the Elephant Protection Initiative - to put ivory beyond economic use.  

 Are there certain sectors of the population – Millennials, for example – who are receptive to making these changes against some of the traditions where ivory is traded? 
Yeah, the U.S. is saying they’re going to ban or regulate ivory, at least, which means that, first of all, international trade is illegal, and will continue to be illegal.

And it’s worth noting that the president of China, President Xi, has announced, with Obama, the move to implement that decision, to regulate domestic markets.  They are en route.  So what we should do is celebrate and reinforce that decision.  China is taking steps to fix this, so they’re on our side. They’re moving.  

Regarding the cultural shift argument, I have every faith in people that if they were aware that the desire to wear a trinket on you wrist results in seven-ton animal being slayed – and having its face cut off with a chainsaw – that they would act differently.  We thought that fur coats were a beautiful cultural thing, and some people wear them still, but many fewer.  We thought smoking was a great idea for ages, and now it’s only occasionally a good idea [laughs].  We now know that there are some risks associated with its practice.  I mean, we’re all as bright as each other; it just takes information.  There’s no reason why an elephant should die for a trinket, the same reason that there is no reason a rhino should die for some hokey medical nonsense. 

Going back to Tarzan:  What is our relationship with nature?  What does it do for us; how do we work it?  Is it there to be exploited to the end?  And with the younger generation, that relationship is changing. They’re ridiculously more informed than we were; maybe because all information is available all of the time – we didn’t have any of that.  I also think they’re more ecologically conscious because they have to be.  And that’s to be celebrated.  .  

So, I think that we need to be aware.  And, again, the film looks at our relationships – man and animal, woman and animal – and that is a great dialog to have. The fact that another Tarzan film is being made keeps that dialog going.  It’s good news.

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